Like dancers, stage technicians have a touch of masochism in their culture. Both groups work long hours with erratic schedules. Both are associated with physical dangers — picture the stagehand standing on a ladder with his power tool, the dancer pushing herself to the physical limits of strength and endurance.
“They’re both working their bodies toward the same artistic ends, from the opposite ends of the approach,” observed Minneapolis choreographer Karen Sherman.
For more than 20 years, Sherman has been one of the few dancers to experience the dark, often lonely experience of working backstage. On the one hand, she is an award-winning dancer and choreographer whose work appears on stages nationwide. On the other, she maintains a side gig that has her hanging lights, flying scenery and doing mic checks. As a freelance stagehand for the Walker Art Center, Sherman performs a host of tasks that are rarely seen by audiences.
“These are two different cultures I belong to, two different languages I speak,” she said.
And now the Walker has commissioned Sherman to create a show about the hidden world of backstage workers. With “Soft Goods,” opening Thursday, Sherman hopes to illuminate certain truths about the people in black who lurk behind the scenes at your typical theater.
Sherman doesn’t shy from the difficulties that can plague the lives of stagehands. Her show investigates the invisibility inherent in crew work. And then Sherman stretches that concept even further, creating a metaphor for the entire human life cycle.
The idea struck in 2012 when two Walker technicians died suddenly during the same week. One died of suicide at age 47, the other of alcohol-related causes at age 45.
“They were Walker guys, and both came to flaming and self-destructive ends,” said Christian Gaylord, the Walker’s crew chief. “As a production person, you hide in the shadows with your demons and your consumptions.”
In both cases, the men’s bodies were not discovered right away. One was found a week after his death. The other was discovered months later. “These guys were so good at disappearing, they could even disappear in death,” Sherman said of these colleagues and friends.
Another inspiration was Sherman’s close pal Carrie Wood, the show’s original lighting designer. Wood died six months ago, the night before Sherman started her “Soft Goods” residency at the Walker. Wood was only 36 and had struggled with alcoholism. “It was like a bomb going off in my face,” Sherman recalled.
Playing with stereotypes
Structured like a live tech rehearsal for a dance show that never happens, Sherman’s show features dancers and crew members performing their real-life jobs. That means audiences get to see the careful orchestration involved in staging a live show, with all the necessary Genie lifts, cables and ladders left in plain view.
Zachary Humes, a Walker “techie” and designer, will play a version of himself. After 22 years of working behind the curtain, he said, he isn’t too nervous about his performance debut. He’s more worried about the opinions of other techies.
“Do they think I’m a sellout?” he wondered. “I’m just hyperaware.”
Humes’ role consists of speaking a few lines and performing tasks from his typical workday, such as coiling cables. “No one would put a techie on stage without something to do,” he joked.
Sherman uses the show to examine our assumptions about workers such as Humes. “Your stagehand stereotype is kind of a dwarf mentality,” observed Gaylord, who also appears in the show and was involved in its development. “We live deep in our caves, and don’t wish to associate with the bright people above.”
That means tension with the more visible, celebrated performers. One scene has the dancers and technicians forgoing handshakes to greet one another with physical combat.
Gender also gets placed under the microscope. The show features a predominantly male crew with mostly women performers. It was Sherman’s first foray into gender-specific casting, something she generally hopes to avoid. But the casting is “very reflective of the reality of both industries,” she said. For the stagehands, that meant amping up their masculine traits. There are references to men correcting women, for example. Or taking credit for women’s ideas.
Walker reflects on own culture
Sherman hopes that by the end of the show, audiences have a better appreciation for backstage work. Already Philip Bither, the Walker’s performing arts curator, says the show leaves him with more empathy for these invisible laborers and designers. The Walker will honor Wood and its other late technicians by donating one dollar from every “Soft Goods” ticket to an organization called Behind the Scenes. This New York-based charity provides stage technicians with financial support when facing illness or injury.
The Walker has four key crew members who are full-time employees, Bither said. These workers are well paid with reasonable schedules. In Bither’s view, they are at least somewhat insulated from the industry’s worst demands. But the Walker and other local theaters also rely upon freelancers such as Sherman. These workers contend with unpredictable schedules and irregular paychecks. With a little nudge from “Soft Goods,” Bither is now reflecting on how to create a more human workplace for Sherman and her colleagues.
“It has caused me to think about making sure we are treating people as well as we possibly can,” he said.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts writer.